A Breathe of Hell
Snarling greets the party as they begin to move down the dark tunnel. Delving down at a slight decline, the tunnel was first traveled by the party several weeks ago. The party was confounded by the impassable gates at the end of the tunnel during that visit. But this time, the party was intent on gaining entrance, and make its way past its guardian.
The Gates of Hell, or some close approximation, is how Mertat has interpreted the carved sigils over the tunnel’s entrance. Scribed in a hellish language, this section of Rappan Athuk offers an alternative to the demons so frequently encountered of late, included the Mertat-bane Vrocks. Rather, denizens of hell would be faced, devils and their minions, and few in the party except perhaps Abban was relishing the coming task.
Eccial was not surprised about the presence of both devils and demons within Athuk. The demons, as servants of Orcus the Befouled, would certainly be in abundance, presaging his entry into Golarian. Demons were perfect servants for his extreme brand of cruelty, keen on wanton destruction, while spreading as much suffering into the world as possible. But the devils, they were of a different mentality, and were likely not directly allied with the demons. Using the weakness of the temporal Wall, it would be a simple and likely thing for devils to also enter Golarian thru Athuk. With the mayhem and panic the demons would cause by their seemingly random acts of violence, the devils could enter and with subterfuge guide events so that they could achieve a mastery over the people. For certainly they delighted in torment, casting the peoples into the servitude of their masters.
For once, Eccial led the way down the passage. The last time they had come this way, a natural cavern had been reached, with a set of magically-bared gates hindering their further passage. Perhaps it had been best then that they did not try and pass those gates, for on the other side a huge black mastiff stood guard. As large as the greatest lion, the three headed beast belched fire at the party, blackening the steel bars and scorching the stone to as dark as its fur. Not having a way past the gates, the party had left the area, but vowed to return.
While the rest of the parted rested after their struggle with Magress, Sabus and his sister had debated all night. At last, they had come to a common accord, and Sabus had slept. By mid-afternoon he had rejoined the party, gathered into the common room of Odo’s tavern. They still had some aches and pains, but their wounds were mostly healed. Following the agreement with Shala and the feyfolk, the party had agreed to the task offered.
They would delve into Athuk and defeat Orcus.
Simple as that.
But they all knew the task would be difficult. Along the way they would need aid in their fight. And while Athuk had certainly turned into a vile place, there also were pockets of unexpected alliance within, as well as treasures of great power. Both would be needed in the struggle ahead.
Finishing his second meal at the tavern, Eccial had looked around. The tavern room had been mostly cleared of the wreckage from the night before. And in honor of the victory over the Rakshasa, and importantly his demon minions, Odo had decided to rename the tavern Dead Vrock Inn. Quite fitting, Eccial thought. Odo would still maintain the Fire Hawks’ merchandising agreement – he was not one to renege on a business dealing, especially one that he was finding profitable. But by renaming the tavern, people of the surrounding area would be reminded that even though his tavern was on the edge of wilderness, they could feel safe. Odo would offer protection against any evil threats that tried to come to the inn. There was certainly more to Odo Bristleback than meets the eye. Yes, Dead Vrock Inn was in good hands.
So leaving Zelkor’s Ferry using Mertat’s magical transport, they had chosen to complete the exploration in this section of Athuk. Reaching the end of the tunnel, Eccial lead the way to the open area before the gates. The tunnel here was about five paces wide. And as before, thick black bars of steel ran from stone ceiling to stone floor, baring the way. Perhaps Sabus could be squeezed through the bars, but he would not want to face what was on the other side of the gate alone.
Out from the shadows, the beast emerged. At first only a pair of gleaming crimson eyes, shooting rays of light over the party as it examined its prey. Then two other sets of eyes flashed forth. All bright crimson, all intent upon the party. The fiery eyes cleaved through the darkness and entered the dim light cast by a few sputtering torches off to the right and left of the room. The torches stood guard next to duplicate pairs of double steel doors.
Entering the light, the creature is now on full display – three heads, each bearing a set of the fearful eyes, set upon a single set of broad shoulders the width of a man height. Standing as tall as Abban, the sleek ebony beast stamps closer to the party, wisps of smoke rise steaming from the scorching floor.
Kael, prepared for this moment, steps forward and kneels, aiming his gun stick at the beast. Touching off the gun, a loud bang and sheet of flame hurl the lead slug forward. Launched between the bars, the bullet’s aim is true, headed directly to the space between the eyes of the middle head of the beast. But just before it reaches its target, the bullet dissolves, and is but a wisp of smoke as it touches its target, totally ineffectual.
Mertat senses something about the beast “This will not work, gunslinger. We need to get to the other side of the bars. Gather around me.”
The party quickly grasps the plan, and move to surround Mertat. They prepare for the short dimensional hop to the other side of the bars, intent on skipping right past the barrier to launch their attack on the beast. But hell’s denizen takes the opportunity of the party gathered in a bunch and breathes its fire from all three heads. Blistering flames shoot past the steel bars, heating them to an intense red glow. Then, the flames bath the party in the pure cleansing pain of fire.
Screaming and cursing, several of the party members are singed. But Luck granted the party a bequest. Eccial was closest to the hellhound, and the brunt of the flames was born by him. The magic of his armor absorbs the most intense heat, and diverts much of the rest. Though some are affected, it would have been much worse had Eccial not been in the forefront of the assault.
Taking advantage of the brief pause as the hellhound retreats back a step to prepare another breath of fire, Mertat calls out his magic, and the party is teleported to the other side of the bars. In but an instant, the beast is now surrounded by the party on all sides.
Not expecting the sudden appearance of the party on his side of the bars, the hellhound strikes out viciously at all sides with its bite, trying to drive the party back and away so that it could breathe the hellfire once more.
But working in concert, the protection of the party is secure, and few take damage. Then Abban and Sever jointly call out for the aid of their god, and name the hellhound evil, and smite the hellhound. Thus blessed by the hand of their god, their strikes land true and breach the magical protection which the beast, in its evil, had been cursed with.
Great slashes and wounds fall upon the hellhound, and it screeches in pain. The party lands series after series of blows, and the hellhound is powerless to stop the attacks. It attempts to back up, but the party moves fluidly with the beast as in a well-rehearsed dance. And it is a final dance, as Abban swirls a final flurry of smites upon it, rending the central head from body, and thus casting the beast back to the netherworlds.
But there is no time to delay and congratulate each other for the victory. For the intense heat of the floor remains, and their boots begin to singe and smoke. Ignored during the heat of battle is over, Sever now notices the new threat as the leather on the soles of his boots begin to smoke.
“I will not lose my boots!” Sever yells out.
He rushes to the set of double steel doors off to the right. They are unlocked, and Sever throws them open. The way now clear, Sever launches himself through the doorway and into a small room which ends shortly at another set of steel-bound double doors.
The entire party stumbles into the room, falling on the floor, waving at their smoking and steaming boots. Thinking quickly, Mertat produces a decanter. Speaking a word, out pours a steady stream of water. He directs the water at each set of boots. The water is effective at bringing relief, and soon the heat subsides as each party member is soothed of the heat
A neat magical trick, thinks Eccial. And not a bad way to save the old footwear. “Wonder what other knickknacks the cleric has in that knapsack of his,” he muses.
“Not going through another series of rooms in this cursed hole barefoot” Sever declares.
Eccial cackles as he thinks back to their first foray into Athuk, many months ago. The party was edging down a stairwell. Keeping an eye behind as the rearguard, Sever had failed to notice what every other party member had avoided – a simple trap on one of the stairs. His foot went through a false stone and became pinched in a bear trap-like device. Much to his chagrin, the only way to extract himself out of the trap was to slip his foot out of the boot. It worked, but the boot could not be retrieved and was left behind. Even now the boot is likely still embedded in the stairs as a token of triumph for the crafter of the trap.
After losing his boot, Sever had gone many days wandering through the corridors barefoot, with little more than rags bound around his foot. Eventually, though, he was able to secure a new boot. While the boot he found was quite a bit too small, and worse it was gained from the skeleton of an animated human’s remains, he was glad to have it.
The party had eventually returned to Zelkor’s Ferry for a rest. And since that time, Eccial had noticed a new distinctive bulge in Sever’s pack. Though Sever refused to acknowledge the object, Eccial believed he knew, and cackles again.
Sever looks crossly at Eccial “You have no idea the muck and nastiness that lays in random pools throughout these dungeon corridors. Boots are not a luxury.”
Hearing a harrumph, and ignoring the few muttered insults of Sever’s manliness from the Halfling, Sever turns and begins examining the new set of doors.
Cackling loudly once more, Eccial thinks to himself “Oh yes, I am certain what’s in that pack of yours, Sever the Bootless One.”
A Tongue Lashing
Leaning heavily on his sword, Eccial ignores the pool of blood forming at its tip, ground into the stone floor at his feet. Thinking back on Sever’s recent panic at nearly losing his boots, Eccial better appreciates the need for the boots, as the bloody ichor oozes around the soles of his boots.
Stepping back from the pool, Eccial examines his sword. Its entire length is coated with the blood of the strange creatures they had just fought. The fight was one of the most bizarre encounters of which he had ever been a part. And yet, much of the encounter was blurry in his mind, and Eccial now found it difficult to remember exactly what had transpired.
His wet boots secure, Sever had lead the party through the new set of double doors. As they went through the doorway, they had been sent through some type of dimensional shift to another room. With nothing but another set of doors before them, they had gone through that – and found themselves shifted once again. This pattern continued several times until at last they found themselves back in the room they had started.
Trying to figure out if there was a pattern, they had set out again through the various doorways, dimensional shifting between rooms and hallways. Each time they shifted, it seemed to be within this same level of the dungeon. It was soon apparent that the shifting was devised by the habitants of this level as a defensive mechanism designed to confuse any intruders.
“Mind fluster” Sever muttered. The defense worked.
Most of the rooms to which they were sent were little more than short corridors. Occasionally, chanting of some fell creatures in a strange language could be heard echoing down the halls. Other times, rushing waters could be heard and sensed through the stone. And there was a small section of kennels they discovered – after the encounter with the hellhound, the party steered clear of that area.
In one room, a stone pedestal stood in the center, containing a viscous dark liquid. Treating the liquid like an unopened chest before Sever, Mertat unwisely tasted the liquid. His body convulsed as the magic surged through his body. After a few moments, Mertat shook his head and looked around sheepishly. He was clearly affected by the potion in some sort of negative way, but Mertat brushed off the inquiries and they continued on their way. Even Eccial saw the wisdom of not partaking of the fluid.
Eventually, the party had come to a door that was secured with an intricate look. Beyond the door, chanting and rushing water could be clearly heard. Sever worked with the lock for several minutes, using every tool in his kit. But it was to no avail – the lock refused to open. Abban also tried the lock, thinking perhaps there was some sort of magic that he could divine, also to no avail.
Impatient at the delay, Kael stepped forward “Sorry Sever, but even sometimes will a latch not surrender to your services.” Aiming his gunstick at the lock, he fired, and the door swung open.
The battle that then ensued was confusing to Eccial. Within the revealed room was another of those quickly rushing underground rivers. And there were creatures in this room – a dozen, perhaps a few more or less. The tall, hairless creatures reacted to their intrusion immediately, and turned to assault the party.
Standing a head taller than Abban, the human-like creatures wore long flowing robes, and slippered feet that scooted silently over the stone floor. The creatures had a very disturbing method of movement, darting here and there as they moved quickly about the area. But most unsettling was the mouth – large fangs hidden behind a series of fleshy tendrils. The tendrils, hanging down loosely to their chest, were used by the creatures to wrap around the heads of their victims. Thus grappled, they would hold them tightly. The victim thus immobilized, fangs would then be sunk into the base of the neck and skull of their victim, feeding on spinal fluid and brains.
A series of disturbing and confusing mental attacks was directed upon the party. Though Eccial vaguely understood the threat that was attacking their party, he felt compelled to enter into the embrace of the creatures for comfort. At times, it seemed as if the unnatural urgings he was feeling encouraged him to sleep, or think of his childhood playing with his brothers in the fields. All of these thoughts and many more seemed to rush into his mind at once. Thus distracted, it was easy to ignore the gentle tugs at his spine as they wrapped their tendrils about his head.
Eccial did remember watching, or perhaps dreaming, Sever and Abban streak across the room and attack one of the creatures standing in the back. Why they would do that, when the memories of youth were so much more pleasant to ponder, Eccial could not divine. But as the blows from mace and sword rained down on the creature, Eccial was stirred to life, and recognized he may be in some danger. With a distracted shake, he cast off the creature holding him in its arms.
The creatures then seemed to fall down on the ground in front of him. A lash from a whip cracked out – it must have been Sabus positioned behind him in the doorway. The creatures’ legs were entangled, causing them to fall prone on the ground. Mertat and Kael joined Sabus in the attack, taking advantage of their weakened stance, smashing and shooting them until they stopped moving. Idly, even Eccial swung the sword, though for what reason he could not quite grasp. The creatures before him were smashed. The creatures were cut and stabbed, and then stopped moving. But none of it many any sense at all.
It was only now, with the creatures all lying dead about him, did Eccial begin to understand the danger they had posed. Mertat came to him then, speaking some words, and the haze that clouded his thoughts cleared a bit, and he saw the attack for what it was. Using mind tricks of confusion and other assaults, including waves of sonic pain, the creatures had attempted to lull the party into submission. But the failure of their mind assaults was now evident. The party functioned well together, exhibiting a certain tribe mentality that allowed it to function even when besieged with new challenges.
Looking at his sword again, it remained thickly coated with blood, but no longer dripped. Stooping down to one of the creatures, Eccial wipes the sword clean on its robe.
“These are illithids, if I remember rightly” Kael says.
Looking at the dead creatures, Mertat disagrees “Nay, that cannot be” shaking his head. “That word has no meaning in Golarian – even my Helm of Languages does not register that word. Say not that word again. These must be named something else.”
“Aye,” confirms Sabus. “Another appellation must be used. Here in Golarian, the term Phrenic Scourges would be proper and allowable”
His head now clearing, Eccial thinks “That name is quite a mouthful for any monster, even for one as deadly and mysterious as these.” But through his damaged vocal cords, all he manages is a strangled “Quite – mouthful – mys’tree-us.”
Looking at Eccial, Kael smiles at the simple jest “Horrors such as these have I heard of before. But never did I envision to encounter their equivalent. And now, I hope we shall not again.”
But unfortunately for Kael and his companions, they now wandered in Rappan Athuk. The halls now reveled in crushing hopes, for these were not the last Scourges about.